Authors & Books - As Cruel As Nature by Neil Roberts

Almost a year ago I chatted with writer Neil Roberts about his love for short fiction. Fast forward 11 months and we met up in cyberspace to talk about where the fragments of his imagination have taken him since then. It seems he's been busy!

Q1 Neil, as a writer of short fiction, how does it feel to have a debut, full-length novel on circulation to agents?

Frankly there are mixed feelings. Although From On High is the first novel I've circulated to agents it's not the only one I've written (more of that later). Likewise I've been published a few times in anthologies which has coloured my opinion of my own writing.

A few years ago I touted a previous novel to a few agents and publishers. It never found a home, but received a some positive responses among the form rejection letters. Those handful of encouraging sentences kept me going - words of praise from professionals have that effect - but my self-doubts always said "if the novel had been that good they would have accepted it". Such is my inner voice, and it speaks longer and louder than any isolated sentence ever could. As a result I toiled away in seclusion, writing more for my own pleasure than out of any hopes of publication. I wrote a second novel in that time, but kept it to myself.

From On High is actually my third novel, but only the second I've sent to all those agents and agencies.

This time the process feels different. Having had shorter works published I now know that my writing is of sufficient quality to warrant acceptance so selection comes down to that intangible set of criteria used by agents. Do they feel passionate about it? Is there a market for it? Can they sell it to a publisher? That last is vital, of course - they are running a business after all.

So far I've received nothing but rejections, but I can honestly say I'm far less bothered than I was before. A little bit of self-confidence goes a long way. Having said that, there's still that heady mix of good vibes and doubt whenever I check my emails.

Q2 Tell us about your work and what inspired it. Use the elevator pitch idea if you want - you're in a lift with the agent of your dreams, so what do you say before the fifth floor?

Fifth floor? Well then I'm going to seriously bend your ear - you know how fast I can speak.
In just a couple of sentences: From On High is an end-times novel set in in the modern day, placed in Christian Cornwall and written by a secular Jew. It centres around Finn and a mysterious figure named Doe who becomes part of his life, an invader and protector rolled into one. Think 'urban gothic' without the unnecessary romance, but with extra hamburgers. There's conversations, confrontations, revelations and more. I hope you'll get a chance to read it very soon.

As to what inspired it, well it evolved from a short story of the same name which I wrote some time ago, itself inspired by a short story you wrote, Derek (Behind Enemy Lines? Am I recalling correctly? [You have a good memory, Neil!]). I always knew my own short had a kernel I could expand upon but it took years (and several false starts) to discover that hidden story.

Writing it was as close to torture as anything I've ever done. Seriously, it was the literary version of self-harm. There are some very dark threads running through everything I write, but none more so than with From On High. In places it was a real struggle to carry on writing, to follow those threads to their horrifying conclusion. Gruelling might be a better word. Thankfully the result has been far more than worth it.

Q3 How did you decide which agents to try first? Also, what made you choose the traditional publishing route as your first option?

I actually did a search on the Internet and started noting down agents which seemed to fit. Sometimes it was based upon the genres they listed as of interest, sometimes on their existing clientele, sometimes on the agents' bios. Much as when they choose their clients, I find that choosing an agent has definite insubstantial components.

Once I had that list of twenty or so agencies I started calling them. A few I crossed-off right then and there. Maybe I'll approach them again in future, but not right now. Why? you ask. Well, not because I wasn't a fit for them, but because I didn't get a feel that they would be a good fit for me. As an author I will be working closely with an agency for a long time - there's a reason so many books are dedicated to agents - so if someone starts off being brusque, unfriendly or downright rude that sets off alarm bells. And remember these people will potentially be representing me so I needed to think how I would come across in their hands.
Most of the people I spoke to were receptionists or PAs, not the agents themselves, but you can get a good handle on an organisation by their choice of customer-facing staff. I noted the names and positions of those with whom I spoke and was as polite as I could be. I also made sure I knew to whom I should address my submissions.

Once I had my final list I started sending off submissions in the format each agent requested. Some agents want just three chapters, others 10,000 words and others still the first 50 pages - I gave them what they asked and always included a covering letter including my bio and the fact I'd already spoken to them or one of their colleagues. I used the names from the notes I'd taken as well. Sending a cover letter "to whom it may concern" is never as good as one which is sent "Dear Mr Blogs", and if I've spoken to their colleague Dave it makes sense to say so.

Then I waited. And waited. And waited. As emails came in I responded to them and updated my list. It's not a quick process. After three months a few had not replied so I called them again. Three hadn't received my submissions (possibly thanks to spam filters) and one had lost it in an internal reorganisation, so I resent emails to each of them.

So far it's been over five months since those first emails were sent and I've not yet heard back from all the agents (one responded exactly five months to the day after I'd sent my submission).

As to why I've chosen to pursue 'traditional' publishing, well that's probably due to several factors, and was not necessarily a conscious decision.

I still have an emotional connections to actual books so that was undoubtedly an important reason, but I also know that my strengths as a writer are in writing, not marketing. I don't know publishers, their business or their craft. While I could educate myself, I'd rather explore the option of using an expert in such matters first, and that's exactly what agents are.

But I'm more than happy to explore non-traditional publication. In fact I already have...

Q4 What are you working on at the moment?

I'm taking a break for a little bit, pursuing digital sculpture with more diligence while I rest the literary portions of my mind. But there's still a little research going on, a little bit of editing filling a few of my hours. I just needed to take a few weeks off from writing to recharge the batteries.

My first novel was As Cruel As Nature and in November I chose to publish it via CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing. Why? Because at 140,000 words long it was simply far too large for a first-time author to hope to see published.

However, it remained my first novel, a passion-piece and a real learning experience, so I wanted to get it out there.

I put about a month into rewriting, editing, polishing, prodding and formatting it. The process had been started many times, but this was the one which I vowed would end with publication. For various reasons it became vitally important to me.

I published at the end of November so now As Cruel As Nature is finally available in paperback or ebook in the usual places (i.e. Amazon).

If you're interested - and since you've read so far I assume you are - it's set within free Russia, occupied Russia and Poland during the winter of 1943 and follows a group of Russian insurgents on a mission deep into the heart of the Third Reich. It's what would happen if the task to save Private Ryan had been given to a very Russian Dirty Dozen.
I also decided recently to publish a few collections of my short stories - I have been in a publishing frenzy!

I've been formally published a few times now, both here and in the US, and subsequently had the rights to those individual stories revert to me so thought I'd get those pieces back out there. To be frank, there's not a lot else to do with them - publishers are after first publication rights, not second. I also had a few other stories written for competitions and the like which were just taking up space on my hard-drive so decided to anthologise them all in three small, themed collections.

I called them Fragments of My Imagination and they are available for download on Amazon too.

Oh, and I'm working on a collection of stories alluringly titled ReVive Clive.

I guess I'm not taking as much of a break as I thought.

Q5 Ebooks or paperback, or both?

Both. Definitely both.

I'm still attached to the physical medium, but ebooks are so accessible these days.
There's also the financial factor. Books have a per unit manufacturing cost and this reflects the price. To illustrate, As Cruel As Nature in paperback costs £12.99 while in ebook it's just £1.99. And I see practically the same royalty from each. Naturally I didn't have the same production overheads and running costs as a publishing house when I prepared As Cruel As Nature, but that means there are costs I don't need to pass on to my readers. So I haven't. The only reason my printed works cost more is because of those manufacturing costs.

There are downsides to the ebook revolution though. When sites like CreateSpace made self-publishing through print on demand so easy the volume of books available surged. The rise of the ebook has turned a surge into a deluge. There are thousands of books published every day on Amazon, books which would otherwise have gone out to publishers. And that's the problem. While many of those books have merit there are so many more which would have never have travelled beyond the slushpile. More of a shame is that many of those which are actually of a potentially publishable quality desperately need the attentions of an editor or two. Seriously, check out some of the reviews on Amazon (assuming you haven't a volume or two already on your shelf) and see how many lament the layout, misspelling and grammatical errors in otherwise excellent books. Once the monumental task of writing a novel has been completed every writer wants to get their book out there - I know I did - but there's a reason it takes publishers the best part of a year to get that story from "the end" to the shops.

There is, however, a solution. If you're serious about writing then join a writers' group or two. Not only does it focus your writing it also gives feedback. A second eye on your work is always a good thing - it's far too easy to become blind to your flaws while you're toiling away in blissful isolation.

Q6 Name two books that changed the way you thought about your own writing.

That is a damned difficult question. Seriously, it's a real ass-kicker.

The first would have to be Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks. It made me realise that it had become possible to break genre expectations. When many hear sci-fi they think Star Wars or Star Trek, but Banks broke that mould. Hell, he shattered it. Even though Use of Weapons isn't hard sci-fi, it's far from space opera too, and - most importantly - the setting is predominantly a backdrop to a story about the human condition (even though none of the protagonists are exactly human).

The second book is an anthology named Slaughterhouse: the Serial Killer edition, volume 2. It was the first anthology for which I was accepted and, simply put, that was the first time I believed I was actually capable of producing publishable work. That was a real sea-change for me. It meant that I'd passed an important threshold, one which many writers never breach. 'Acceptance or rejection' is still the big dilemma in my writing life, but now I can legitimately believe that the factors involved needn't include whether I'm any good at the actual writing bit. At long last I am, at the very least, good enough.

Q7 How do you know when your characters have 'come to life'?

When I stop being able to write them and have to accept the way they want to act. Yes, it's a cliche, but there comes a point when the characters are in situations where I have planned for them to act a certain way. And they don't. I'll find myself saying "Finn would never be so blas√©" or "Weidermann wouldn't say that". That's when my novel finally becomes their story.

Q8 What are your writing goals for 2017?

To use my writing time more wisely. Seriously, if I wrote as much on my word processor as I do in YouTube comments I'd be more prolific than Stephen King.

I'm also intending to make more use of my Twitter account.

Q9 Where can we find out more about your writing?

As mentioned previously, I keep a very occasional Twitter account on @WriterRoberts. I also have a goodly amount of work now available on Amazon. Just search for P N Roberts. Then tell your friends (especially if they're literary agents). Damn, I'm becoming shameless.

Authors & Books - Celina Summers

Writers are an interesting community. We bicker, compete, support each other and also draw inspiration from one another. It's my great pleasure here to interview Celina Summers, who I had the good fortune to meet when I was part of the Musa Publishing family. She's not only a savvy writer; she takes a scholarly and detailed approach to creating her fiction. Frankly, if you're not inspired after reading this you need to go and read it again! 

Q1 Tell us about your recent work and what inspired it.

Right now, I’m playing around with multiple genre mashups. Probably the best way to describe what I do is literary fantasy. My recent work has been set in 18th century Europe, Asia, and America, with time traveling, magic realism, mythology, and swords and sorcery combined with historical fiction. It’s a lot to keep straight. Greco-Roman mythology is a huge influence in my writing, having studied classical authors like Ovid and Vergil since I took Latin in high school. So while I have immortal entities that are based upon mythology, my main characters are having to confront 18th or 21st century problems, which creates fascinating conflicts for them.

This kind of multiple genre work is more difficult than the straight-up epic fantasy I used to write. The historical aspects of the story requires a lot of research, for one. I have huge storyboards on Pinterest with images of everything from costumes to knickknacks to architecture and art. All the details must be correct in order for such a world to work. So crafting the world is far more difficult. And the consequence, naturally, of writing something so different is you (or your agent) finding a publisher who is willing to take on your literary/historical/time travel/magic realism/mythological/romance/swords and sorcery fantasy novel. They can’t immediately see how to shelve such a novel in bookstores, and that makes them hesitant to take on a project that complicated.

So it’s definitely a challenge on many levels, but I love what I’m doing so I keep plugging away at it.

Q2 What is your take on the publishing industry at the moment?

The publishing industry is once again in transition. For indie authors and small presses who rely primarily on e-publishing, the options are narrowing fast. Amazon’s KDP is convenient and easy to use, so the market is getting flooding with really bad books. The other platforms like Barnes and Noble or Smashwords aren’t any e-pubbed writer’s top selling site. So authors who are self-publishing have one real shot at breaking through and that’s Amazon.

But not so fast—the Amazon sales algorithms are skewed. Preferred product placement occurs only if a book has enough ratings and reviews. Well anyone can get all their friends and co-workers to run off to Amazon and review their books, and many authors do just that. So it’s frustrating when you see books that should never have been published getting so many sales and reviews and popping up on your sales pages as suggestions.

That being said, the pendulum between traditional publishing and digital publishing is swinging back to a more balanced market. While the Big Five are still controlling the lion’s share of the book market, e-books are here to stay. Many writers (and I include myself in this) are learning how to use both routes professionally. I am self-publishing my backlist of small press-published books and adding new sequels to those stories, while my agent is representing my new work. The arrangement works well for us both.

Q3 What are you currently working on?

The primary project I’m currently working on is a series entitled Danse Macabre. In this world, Death isn’t the Grim Reaper, but a conglomerate of immortals who each are assigned a specific group of mortals whose lifespans they monitor. When a civil war breaks out among the immortals for control of humanity’s future, Morgaine, the Death of Art, is faced with a series of adversaries that are not only targeting the mortals in her domain but threaten existence itself. What results is the ultimate Danse Macabre, and neither the mortal nor immortal realms will ever be the same.

At the moment, I have several projects on my desk. But I just finished Symphony of Death, the first book in the Dance Macabre, so it’s uppermost on my mind. In fact, my agent received the manuscript yesterday.

I’m also working on a sequel to the two series I self-published in 2016—The Asphodel Cycle and The Black Dream. (By the way, publishing eight books in eight months looks like a really great idea on paper. But it’s a lot harder than you think it is and you have to work your rear end off to make that happen. Trust me.) The new book, which may turn into a series as well, is the story of the Asphodel heirs. The world of Asphodel is the retelling of major classical myths like the Trojan War or the Titanomachy using traditional fantasy characters and settings. So there are endless possibilities for future stories there. The Asphodel Cycle was my first published series, and coming back to the world after ten years away was a lot of fun.

I’m tinkering with an idea that’s a riff from my Harlequin Theater literary fantasy series. That world is set in contemporary American theatre, and revolves around a company that uses magic to integrate the audience into the performance. Think The Phantom of the Opera meets Something Wicked This Way Comes. That world is a lot of fun to play in.

And I’m building a couple of other fantasy worlds, revising my horror series, Red Ink, which is based on Jack the Ripper, freelance editing and sports writing. Safe to say I’m extremely busy. But I love it.

Q4 Ebooks or paperback, or both?

I don’t write with a particular medium in mind except for the Asphodel series. Unless you’re self-publishing or writing for a specific publisher, this isn’t a question a writer should really worry about. All my books that are currently published are available in both digital and paperback formats.

Q5 Name two books that changed the way you thought about your own writing, or even changed the way you write.

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey, and Daughter of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts. Both books revolve around female protagonists who find a way to succeed despite their gender.

Carey’s world is lush and voluptuous and vivid, having based her story in a world where a courtesan who’s been taught how to be a spy is the key to changing her society. Carey’s descriptive powers are incredible—probably the most intricate and extravagant world building I’ve ever seen—and her heroine is unforgettable. She is deeply flawed and superior at the same time.

Feist and Wurts set their heroine in a lavish, intense world with Oriental settings, culture, and traditions—which needs to happen more in fantasy. The story is about a girl who has always followed traditions having to take the reins of a once powerful house after her family’s rivals kill both her father and older brother. She learns that in order for her and her house to survive, she must play the political game better than any man in the Empire—and she cannot afford to unquestioningly follow the traditions that usually bind the players.

Both books feature heroines who don’t need to be saved. They are intelligent, cunning, and strategic. They use their minds to outplay their foes, and I appreciate the incredible stages those heroines have been provided as well.  Both books changed the way I looked at my heroines, and how I can give them the same stage without having to beat the reader over the head with, “She’s a bad ass. Get over it.” With both books, the writer in me was able to dissect how to establish a strong, victorious heroine without having to make her unfeminine.

Q6 How do you know when your characters have 'come to life'?

When they won’t shut up. I’m one of those writers who ‘sees’ the story in my head and puts it on paper. I never outline, but I always know where the book is going to end. I just let the story play out—it’s basically like taking dictation for me, which irritates some of my writer friends for some reason. And as I’m writing full time now, I’m working 14-16 hours a day, 7 days a week. If the characters keep talking while I’m working, then I keep working.

Hate to break the flow. Don’t want to stop and then face a Samuel Taylor Coleridge “A maid with a dulcimer” moment and forget where the story was taking me. Of course, I’m not cranked up on opium so maybe it wouldn’t hit me the same way it did him.

Q7 What are your top tips for acquiring and then working successfully with an agent?

I’m a believer in going to conventions and meeting them in person. That’s how I acquired my agent. I went to World Fantasy Con, and hung out all week with a friend of mine (DAW author of the Touched By An Alien series, Gini Koch) and her agent (Cherry Weiner). Cherry asked me to submit my manuscript to her, and upon reading it she signed me. Never underestimate the possibilities of establishing an acquaintance with an agent first.

If cons aren’t your thing, then query. But when you do query, make sure there are no spelling or grammar errors. Learn how to write a great hook, which is more difficult than it sounds. Present your work in a professional manner—don’t try to be cute or clever. Use standard manuscript format. If you want literary representation, you need to demonstrate your professionalism as much as your work.

Q8 Where can we find out more about your writing?

The best places to find out more about me are my website and blog. I spend a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter, and for some reason people really like my Pinterest storyboards.  You can keep up with my articles on writing and publishing (like my recent series on the collapse of All Romance Ebooks and how they absconded with the 4th quarter royalties due every single author and publisher in 2016) on Blogcritics. I enjoy hearing from readers and writers both, and am happy to advise young writers who have a question. So if you catch me between writing blocks, I always appreciate the interaction.

All the things that writing is not

Show me a writer who hasn't declared, some time around the 1st of January, "This will be my year," and I'll show you a writer who has given up the struggle. We are bombarded with ways to write faster, to pluck more ideas from the ether, and to formulate the words and ideas into prize and contract winning prose. Which is not to say that some approaches will work for some people, or that there isn't always room for improvement. 

Sometimes we get lost in the thickets of our own lives - especially the electronic lives we now lead - and lose touch with just what writing is. Should that be the case for you, allow me to separate the trees from the wood.

Writing is not...

Checking emails; updating your Author Central page or your Goodreads author profile; using Tweepdash to cull those nefarious Twitter followers who only want to sell you more Twitter followers, or discount coupons, or porn; posting, sharing or liking on Facebook; checking for new book reviewers on Amazon or Goodreads; playing with spreadsheets - even if that's how you plot your books; reading other writers' blogs; sending out e-newsletters; setting up Tweetdeck Twitter campaigns; blog hops; internet research; submitting your manuscript to an agent or a publisher, even if you have to go down to the Post Office to do it; sitting in cafes with other writers and discussing your latest work / challenges in a heady mixture of coffee, hot chocolate and free WiFi; going for a walk to get some inspiration; listening to other writers being interviewed on the radio; or any of the other things we do as writers when we are unwilling or unable to write.

Writing is...
Putting one word in front of the next, on paper or on screen. 

Sometimes it feels like walking on thin ice. Sometimes we are caught in a sandstorm of intention, blindly making our way forward, only able to see one word at a time. And sometimes we have that blood rush frenzy we call 'the flow' or 'the zone' where the story (or more likely one of its characters) feeds us the lines the way a lover spoons us dessert. However it comes to us, unbidden or hard won, a story only exists when we commit it to words.

To all the writers out there, here's to a productive 2017.